All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: A sword is not load Bearing

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

So… There’s this scene in a book where a swordsman thrusts at a guy with two knives and the thrust was deflected so the swordsman stumbles forward. Knife Guy grabs the swordsman’s collar and then demonstrates to an apprentice that he can a) stab Sword Guy in the throat b) stab Sword Guy in the chest and/or c) cripple Sword Guy. Is Sword Guy just a bad combatant or is this actually usable?

I’m hoping this scene occurred in a safe training environment and not in a live scenario because so many more problems pop up if it did. They’d be a whole other post about why you don’t train people while fighting for your life (even against a subpar opponent, you’re confident your trainer character could beat.) That would be a whole other post about how stupid that makes characters look.

The short answer is that whether or not Sword Guy is supposed to be a good combatant is dependent on the narrative and the author who wrote it. There’s a lot about the scenario that doesn’t make sense and makes both characters look like idiots, along with a general side of “not how this works”. This includes a third arm problem. The author knew just enough to be aware of certain concepts like deflection, stumbling, and grabbing someone by the collar but not how they work or what causes them.

Let’s start at the top.

1. A sword is not load bearing.

Swords weigh between two to four pounds. They’re not heavy. The only way it’d be possible for the swordsman to stumble on a thrust would be if he had to throw his entire weight behind the sword, and have the forward momentum carry him forward. (Which is why the great axe is swung in a figure eight pattern.) However, you don’t need deep penetration with a sword and a thrust is about the tip, not the whole sword. A thrust moves off one leg, not both, in a step forward (if that) and a deflection will not unbalance your opponent on its own. If the weapon weighed twenty pounds, then it couldn’t be deflected. It’d have too much forward momentum. The swordsman would never come close enough for the Dual Wielder to grab him, and the Dual Wielder couldn’t grab him by the collar anyway because he’s duel wielding.

However, this is all predicated on the idea that the swordsman stumbled close enough to be in range for the Dual Wielder. Swords add an extra four or so feet of distance. He wouldn’t be close enough for the dual wielder to reach him. Dual Wielder would have to come to Sword Guy and not the other way around. An experienced knifer would know that.

2. Dual wielding knives is about a sacrificing defense for offense.

Outside specific tools like parrying daggers (which are not the same as regular daggers), knives exist to accentuate hand to hand. Using two means you’ve made a conscious choice to sacrifice utility and defense for more offense. Sacrificing utility includes collar grabbing. He would either need to drop one of his knives (bad) or he sprouted a third arm.

You can hold the knife or grab the collar, not both.

3. The sword is never out of play.

A good rule of thumb is: deal with the weapon first.

This technique that’s being shown off assumes that your enemy will politely stand there while you move two ranges in (from sword to hand to grappling) so you can grab them by the collar to stab them in the throat or chest or stab them in a joint to take them out of the fight. (Let’s ignore the chest too because you’ve got to deal with the breastbone and the unprotected stomach, abdominals, gut is just a few inches lower.)

Of course, Sword Guy still has his sword and edged weapons can cut you coming and going.

If sword guy is using two hands then he can rotate his sword and come back across on the deflection. It assumes the blade is not coming on a downward angle on the thrust, which is not getting deflected. This also assumes sword guy is not half-handing (where one hand is halfway up the blade) which can’t be deflected/parried.

So, all Dual Wielder did was open up his side to a blade that can be reoriented and brought sideways. Which assumes the deflection could happen in the first place, which is unlikely because…

4. You don’t parry with knives.

Again, that’s what your free hand is for.

There’s a problem with this scenario regarding the size of the knives in question. Some knives or daggers like bayonets are long enough they could concievably parry a sword, and get away with it. However, if your blade is long enough that it can parry a sword then grabbing someone by the collar is superfluous because you will be able to strike them before you are in range to grab their body. You’d also be putting your weapon outside the range where it is most useful to you, which is goes against the lesson this teacher is trying to impart.

5. There’s a misconception about depth.

You don’t need to go deep with a blade to do damage. Think about how painful a papercut is, or how easy it is to cut yourself while cooking. Surface level cuts to the skin can cause you to bleed out over an extended period, especially during times of high activity when your heart is rapidly pumping blood through your body. You don’t have to go deep to start cutting muscles in the arms or legs, which can debilitate your opponent.

A lot of writers obsess about stabbing someone in the heart or running someone through with a sword, but the true danger of bladed weapons is that it doesn’t take much against an unarmored opponent. That’s why people wore armor, and part of why the formality of first blood in duels exists. A single cut can be deadly. Surface level injuries with these weapons in the right place can kill you, especially if left without medical attention. Every cut you land is bad for your enemy.

6. We moved two ranges in.

We talk about range sometimes on this blog, but the key thing to remember is that range just means the distance it takes for a specific attack to hit your opponent. Grabbing hold of someone’s collar puts you in grappling range, which means that the person is right up next to you. This is close enough that your arm couldn’t reach full extension if you punched. This is the range where hooks, elbows, and upper cuts come into play.

The kind of stumbling this scenario is talking about is the kind you get when you grab someone and pull them forward. It’s actually very hard to get someone to stumble on a basic attack because most stances will have you set your balance, and your body moves together when you attack. So, in order for you to stumble a large amount of force must be delivered into you or you’re purposefully knocked off balance. All a deflection does is shift the strike off vector so that it misses. If you follow up with nothing, then the other person either resets to their original fighting stance or changes tack and like rotating the blade, kicking, or striking with their other hand. There’s no reason for Sword Guy to stumble at all, certainly not stumble through two other ranges (sword and hand) into grappling without the Dual Wielder needing to do anything. The best way to get someone to stumble forward is to catch them off balance and yank, which can’t be done if you’re holding a weapon.

Conclusion:

The basic problem of this scenario is that it sounds good on the surface but falls apart when you stop to think about it. The scene also lacks key understanding of how these weapons function and why they work. Dual Wielder has an overfocus on the neck/chest, neither of which are particularly good strike points. Remember, the sternum protects the heart from a stab or downward strike. If you want to get there, you’re going to need to go through the ribs. The neck is difficult because if you’ve got short weapons then you have to be up close. Both these places sound good to novices because they know they work or that they should work.

Writing weapons means brushing up on your anatomy. You need to study how the human body works, where it works, and how it breaks. You can cut someone on the wrist, either going after the artery in the forearm or just to distract them while you move in on the better protected target. With knives, two cuts are better than one. You don’t need a lot of penetration.

-Michi

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Q&A: A character can only teach what they know

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: How does one teach fighting? The teacher in question is a dirty street fighter who learned via being beaten up until she learned how to stop that, but assuming she doesn’t want to just pummel her student.

A teacher teaches the way they’ve been taught, especially new teachers who have no other examples to pull from. The problem, of course, is that beating someone up as a training method doesn’t actually teach anything other than how to survive being beaten up. (If the student even learns that, they may just learn how to get beaten up.) This is the sort of slug fest, even when you lose, that makes you feel powerful and strong when you come out the other side (Fight Club is an excellent example) but this is an illusion. You don’t actually learn technical skills from slugging it out with someone else.

The problem here is while I could talk about the methods one uses to teach fighting that won’t actually help you that much, because the methods are entirely dependent on the individual’s experiences and what they’re learning how to do. So, this street fighter can’t teach their student anything they haven’t learned how to do or teach from a method they wouldn’t have any reason to know especially if those methods are outside the realm of their own experience. This will be even harder if she’s never taught before and has no one to go to for advice. This gets even harder if you’re planning to tell a story where either teacher or student has to go outside their own sphere and are up against professional or seasoned combatants used to fighting higher caliber opponents than the ones you find in backroom brawls.

Have I mentioned street fighters are, by their nature, low tier?

They have the capacity to be dangerous, just like everyone else. They have the capacity to do harm, but in terms of technical skill they are at the bottom. No amount of “dirty fighting” changes that because “dirty fighting” is just breaking the expected/established rules of combat and everyone else already does that.

Again, you cannot teach what you don’t know and not all training is created equal. Instructing someone in the combat arts requires a certain level of technical skill, the ability to process and understand that skill, then contextualize it so someone else without the same experiences can understand and imitate. A street fighter can teach a lot of other skills, survival skills for the streets, but they don’t really have the luxury of putting together a robust training regimen to pass on their fighting skills. Mostly because they don’t have that many skills to begin with.

Stop an ask yourself an important question, what did this street fighting character learn from being pummeled? There’s the generic “until she learned to put a stop to it” but that’s generic and doesn’t tell you anything about her experience, about what she learned to do from being beaten. What did she specifically learn to do? How does she, specifically, fight?

Once you know what she can specifically do then you know what she can teach, and start the process of her figuring out how to teach it. If you’ve never thought seriously about the specifics of her fighting abilities then that’s the flaw you need to address. Her limitations are not a bad thing depending on what you need her for as a character and what she needs to teach her student for your narrative to work.

A drill sergeant can only teach you how to be a soldier.

A boxing instructor can only teach you how to box.

A taekwondo master can only teach you taekwondo.

And on and on it goes.

“Street fighters” generally learn to fight by brawling, usually through backroom and backyard brawls. If they don’t learn quickly, like about knives and other weapons, they die fast. This isn’t some cohesive fighting style that’s carefully cultivated and passed on from one fighter to another. When we talk about “street fighters”, we’re usually discussing gangs and similar groups who survive and thrive in the dark corners of society. The romanticized “dirty” component is usually them trying to get a leg up by using knives and other weapons in ambush combat where they finish the fight in the opening blows. Ambush combat is where you take your opponent by surprise and attack before they have time to retaliate, but for street fighters this is often a one trick pony. They often don’t have the stamina or the technical ability to keep going if the first attack fails. Outside underground boxing tournaments, they often operate in groups because numbers will make up for that lack of skill. They don’t usually have the ability to coordinate effectively in a group, but that also usually doesn’t matter because they’re preying on those of even ability or those less capable than themselves. Numbers are what give them an edge over law enforcement because high enough numbers trump skill.

All your street fighter knows how to do is survive ambush combat and execute ambush combat, which is what the beating or brawling process in the street fighter “training” is for

This probably isn’t the romanticized ideal of the “dirty street fighter” you imagine, the deadly fighter whose skills are honed by battles fought to ensure their survival on the streets. The one whose hard won knowledge beats out the soft warriors in their castles. Whose dirty tactics turn the tables to give them an edge while battling the honorable upper crust. The ones who dare to break the rules of warfare because they and they alone understand, “the only fair fight is the one you lose.”

The problem is that anyone who fights in a life or death situation understands that rule. Everyone fights dirty. Everyone takes every advantage they can to win because winning is surviving. Everyone wants to go home to their families at the end of the day. There is no pure combat, no clean combat, and no proper way of doing things. The ideal exists because the ideal is comforting, but warfare is not an honorable business.

I mean, there are soldiers making jokes on Instagram right now about hunting and how they want to say they hunt people but don’t want to sound like a psychopath.

Jokes on you though, because they do. They hunt people.

The romantic ideal of honorable combat which must be embraced for dirty fighting to work is actually bullshit. Honorable combat is a notion that exists both for society’s comfort and to set up rules for controlled combat scenarios like tournaments. You’ll still find people there who are standing by the letter of the rules but breaking with the spirit of them. Like those knights who would unscrew the knob off the sword hilt and bean the other knight with it at the start of the match before attacking. The reason behind the act was to distract their opponent so they could land the early points which would ensure their victory. Yes, nobles were often ransomed during the Middle Ages but plenty of regular soldiers were blinded, had their limbs removed, were imprisoned, or killed by the enemy after capture. The same often happened to those nobles who had no means or no wealthy patron to pay their way.

So, the question you should be asking yourself is how would your street fighter train someone to fight? What does she know how to do? What doesn’t she know how to do? What has she learned that her own master didn’t teach her? How would she choose to impart similar lessons to her student in ways that aren’t vastly outside her own experience or things she wouldn’t think of? Because most of the answers I could give you about how people learn to fight would involve her going to watch some other training master in some other part of the city to see how they train their students then try to imitate that, which ultimately defeats the purpose of what you’re after. She’d be teaching them to fight like someone else and not like herself.

The problem with fiction is that the best writing holds to the rules of the world it exists in. Which means that your character may be the best street fighter but she can only use her experiences to train her student to (hopefully) be the best street fighter. This doesn’t mean they’re the best fighter who can take on all comers, this just means they’re the (hopefully) best street fighter and will have to learn more from other teachers in order to progress through any other sphere. This is also a standard storytelling technique in most sports and martial arts movies, so learn to embrace it.

Remember, the world of the combat arts is vast and specificity is key. Your characters can’t act outside their knowledge without explanation, and a character who comes from a conventionally trained fighting background before going to the streets is very different from one for whom the streets are their only experience. You should review the fighting style you envision this character possessing and ensure it fits with the background you’ve set for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Villain In a Heist is reliant on the Wall

quietemptydiariess said to howtofightwrite: I’m writing a female lead heist film with two lead characters. The villain is one of the women’s best friends. However, I’m having writer’s block on creating the villain character. I haven’t come up with anything.

The antagonist of a heist film is the security systems put into place to prevent the theft of the valuable object the thieves want to steal, the villain of the narrative is either someone who protects the valuable object (like the art museum’s security director) or the owner of the object the thieves want to steal. They can be the owner of the object, another thief who stole the object first, a private collector, the runner of a museum, an interpol agent, an FBI agent, or someone like an insurance investigator put in place to protect the millions of dollars the insurance company will need to dole out if the valuable object gets stolen. Or, there can be multiple secondary villains/antagonists set in multiple positions in the narrative. We have the criminal who owns the piece the thieves want and will kill them if they catch them, the interpol/FBI/insurance agent who is investigating the thieves and applying external pressure, and the security director who is the primary head to head nemesis our thieves are working around.

With a heist narrative, the big antagonist is always the security systems put in place to protect the valuable object. If you don’t have that then you don’t have a story and you don’t have villains.

A heist narrative has two primary antagonists, one are the characters actively working to prevent your thieves from stealing the object and the security systems being put into place to keep the object from being stolen in the first place. The foe in the heist story has to catch their opponent, they can’t simply find and kill them. They investigate them.

The security systems are a wall antagonist, your characters have to find their way around or over a wall. The live antagonist is ultimately secondary to the security precautions, which is the problem your characters are looking to solve.

Heist films aren’t about a race against other people, but your characters are the ones setting the tempo. How do you get the information you need arousing suspicion? When you’re under suspicion, how do you ensure you don’t move too fast that you start making mistakes but also don’t move so slow that you miss the window of opportunity? Your characters are putting themselves on the clock, they need just enough time. They need to be precise.

You, as the author, are setting up a puzzle box.

If you’re having trouble with your villains, you’re having trouble with your puzzle. If you’re having trouble with the villains, you need to be spending more time on your puzzle. The live actor is not the driving force of the narrative, they are reacting to the actions of your thieves. The thieves are the ones who are pushing the story forward. The live actor, the villain, is someone who is just doing their job and the tension with them in the end is they either do their job or they don’t. It’s up to you to build the character drama on whether the best friend will turn one of your heroes in at the end of the film or give them a pass.

The heroes of the heist narrative are active rather than reactive. This can be difficult if you’re not used to working with the heist genre and female characters specifically can have issues with proactivity. Women in fiction tend to be passive (by design), in supportive roles or acting under the direction of an authority figure, they’re reactive rather than proactive. You’re going to have to fight against that impulse, which is to step aside and let someone else (usually male) set the tempo. The villain of a heist narrative doesn’t have to do anything, if your characters never make the first move then what they have isn’t under threat and they don’t need to defend it. Your characters have to get in first and keep moving because if they do nothing then the other side wins by default.

What do you want?

What do you need to get it?

How do you get it?

How do you avoid getting caught?

What are the complications?

This is a chess game. Your heroes are playing white, the villains are playing black. White moves first, black responds. If white doesn’t move, there is no game. You’re playing both sides, and occasionally trap doors will open to take your pieces. After all, this game is about winning and not about rules. White will cheat, but if black catches them cheating it’s also game over.

Heists are exercises in your characters’ creativity.

Your villains are reacting to your characters’ actions.

Relax, and focus on the circumstances surrounding the object the characters intend to steal and how this other character relates to that object.

Once you have your puzzle, you’ll have your solution and then your answer.

-Michi

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Q&A: Similar, But not the same (Improvised Weapon Follow-up)

rainbowfoxes said to howtofightwrite: Would someone who’s been trained in a particular weapon be able to adapt to a makeshift one? For example, if someone was trained in the chain whip, would they be able to use a bike chain to similar effect?

A bike chain not so much, but only because it moves on a single plane and isn’t flexible. A regular chain? Sure. You put a heavy steel lock on the end of a regular chain and you’ve got a makeshift flail/meteor hammer.

However, improvised weapons are not the same as the real weapon and they are more limited in capacity. So, you could probably use a length of chain with movements derived from the whip chain but only the basics (single hand with the other holding the rest of the chain, no redirecting off your upper arm/elbow) and most likely without the same range. This doesn’t mean a simple length of chain cannot be used to devastating effect because it can be, but it won’t be exactly the same with the same techniques. They don’t transition fluidly, and you have to be very specific about the weapons and every day objects you pick out for to combine for improvisation

A tire iron is not designed to beat someone about the head even when that’s what it’s being used for. The benefits of the tire iron lie in the fact its a length of solid steel with a handle and hitting someone with it will hurt a whole hell of a lot. However, given the choice, you’d rather be using a tactical baton. The tactical baton will transition much better to a skill set learned on, say, eskrima with fewer limitations than a tire iron. If you took your tire iron up against someone wielding a tactical baton, you’d be at a disadvantage with subpar weapon.

Add to this the fact you are used to wielding a whip chain and not used to wielding a regular length of chain, you’re going to run up against some problems. The chain is going to be heavier, it will be less fluid, more difficult to spin, your tempo will be slowed, and you’re going to be heavily reliant on the most basic of techniques. The ones you might normally transition into will be out, and there’ll be specific patterns (like the ones where you’d catch on your ribs and stomach) that you will need to avoid for your own safety. Your reflexes will be trained to transition smoothly from one technique to another, which can lead to costly mistakes with a heavier weapon you’re not used to wielding. Those fractions of seconds in delay, the parts where you actually need to stop and think about control rather than react and let your body act, where you’re splitting your attention between your environment and the techniques you’re trying to carry out, can cost you the fight.

This is the advantage of the trained combatant over the untrained combatant. The trained combatant has their techniques ingrained into their reflexes, their reaction times are ten times faster, and this frees their conscious mind up to focus on what’s happening around them rather than on what their body is doing. This is the result of practice, practice for hundreds and, on occasion, thousands of hours retraining their body’s reflexive reactions. Training their muscles to respond, cutting those reaction times down, slimming down the time it takes for their brain to send orders to their limbs. All of this will give them an advantage over someone who does not have similar preparation.

However, weapons are not interchangeable and they are not the same. You hand someone a meteor hammer when they’re used to using a whip chain or rope dart and it will still take time for them to learn how to use the meteor hammer effectively. They’ll learn more quickly than a raw beginner, but they still have to learn. The same truth follows for improvised weapons. This is not the weapon your character is used to using. Similar, yes, but not the same.

This distinction is important to grasp because it can be an excellent source of tension in your scene. In fact, it is one of the hallmark handicaps for experienced fighters handed off by fight scene coordinators. Experienced fighters being forced to rely on weapons they’re not used to can provide uncertainty, and part of stacking the odds against them. Others are numbers, unfamiliar terrain, unexpected combat, without weapons, and forced improvisation. These can all be used to great effect to transform even the most experienced and talented of fighters into underdogs.

And you want them to be underdogs, you want your hero in situations where they’re out of their depth, you want them in situations where they need to get a little creative, you want them in situations where they’re forced to run. You want to establish their limits because once they have limits you can create scenarios where they start to shine, where your audience has a chance to bond with them, and you build up your antagonists in the bargain. It is not very fun to read a fight scene where we know the outcome, even when we already know the outcome. If your hero is not under pressure, if they’re not facing difficulties, if they’re not uncomfortable, if they’re not just a little out of their depth (but not so far that they drown) then the scene has no tension.

Improvised weapons are one means of turning the experienced into the underdog, especially when the enemy has actual weapons. If you can beat the idea into your brain that actual weapons trump improvised weapons no matter who is wielding them (hero, villain, or mook), then you’ll have a better chance of establishing your tension. A character can be unconcerned due to their own ego if they’re outnumbered and outgunned, but you, the author, should be giving your audience reason to be concerned. That starts with establishing limitations.

No two weapons are the same, even those of the same type. Each weapon has its quirks, its flaws, and imperfections that the character who wields it has learned to account for. A character may be able to wield someone else’s longsword, but they won’t wield it as well as their own. Two different weapons of two different types, even those from the same family, are not interchangeable. Improvised weapons suffer from severe limitations because they are not, really, weapons.

Understanding limitations works to your advantage because limitations, external, internal, physical, mental, and moral are key to building tension. Tension is what keeps your narrative interesting.

Your character has her whip chain but she is used to wielding it in open areas with room to swing it and is forced to fight in a crowded street filled with parked cars against five or six enemies who are hunting for her.

This could be a great scene if you’re able to make the most of the presented limitations: numbers, populated area, unfamiliar terrain. You can use the whip chain in close quarters, but the advantages of the whip chain against numbers are out. So, the character must fight in a way the audience was not primed to expect given the weapon choice.

See? Similar to what might’ve been, but not the same.

There’s your wrench. Throw as many as you can.

-Michi

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Q&A: Common accidents are not cliche

For a beginner attempting to use rope/chained weapons, how cliche would it be to have them getting it wrapped around themselves?

I kid you not when I say the first and most common injury you’ll get from the three-section staff when first learning to wield it involves hitting yourself in the head.

Chain/rope weapons are about gaining force with momentum, which means you’re learning to keep the weapon in a state of constant motion. With a weapon like the shaolin dart, the nunchaku, or the whip chain, you use your body as the guide to redirect the weapon while it is moving. This is not just your hands and your wrist, but your upper arm, your shoulders, your sides, your legs, and even, in some cases, your neck. The more complicated the motion, the more difficult the weapon, the more likely you are to make mistakes during training, and chain weapons are the pinnacle for weapon difficulty.

Look at the three-section staff, if you can’t imagine it rebounding at the wrong angle and hitting you squarely in some place very painful during the learning process then… well… lol. That’s unrealistic.

You’re going to lose control of a chain weapon at some point (probably multiple points) during training. And, honestly, you’re going to end up with it wrapped around you at some points on purpose simply because that’s a great way to make it stop moving.

The question about whether or not this will be cliche in your writing is going to depend not on the character getting their weapon wrapped around them, but how this occurs and what kind of motion they were going for to begin with.

Take a moment, (or an hour if you watch this instructional video with John Su) to familiarize yourself with the movement patterns of the weapon you want to write.

If your character is doing a forward spin at the side of their body, then the chain is unlikely to wrap itself around their whole body as part of a mistake. The chain is actually unlikely to wrap itself around anything. In fact, the weapon is more likely to lose the forward momentum, hitch in the middle, stop spinning, and fall to the ground. The chain whip is likely to only wrap itself around the neck, for example, if the practitioner is doing a specific technique which involves the neck. Or a technique which involves their body, and in those cases more likely to wrap around a specific body part in a tight spiral than the whole body.

So if you were imagining the whip chain wrapping itself around the character’s feet and body in such a way that they fall to the ground then you’re not just edging toward the territory of cliche but also that of unrealistic. Mistakes that come from the chain moving in an unnatural manner for the sake of showing the character making said mistake are going to be cliche.

You have to be going pretty fast for the weapon to wrap around you multiple times, and part of your training is learning to control it just enough so you can perform a catch and release. This involves learning to not just moderate your speed at specific junctures during the technique, but also mastering the patterns of circular movement. It’s not just that the weapon is going to wrap around you, but that you control when and how it does.

See take this example. They won’t be going this fast in the beginning, they should practice slowly and in individual pieces or they’re far more likely to hurt themselves. However, even an experienced practitioner can end up with the whip chain hitting them or wrapped around them in a way they didn’t intend.

Still, the term beginner is also a misnomer. The whip chain or nine section chain, the rope dart, the three section staff, the nunchaku, are all advanced weapons at the end of a comprehensive martial arts curriculum. They are Eastern weapons, and there is a specific pattern of advancement all students follow before they reach a point where the weapon becomes accessible. So, you don’t join a martial arts school and get to start using a chain weapon right off. You will begin building the whip chain’s technical foundation while studying the staff, just as you begin with hand to hand techniques before gaining access to the staff weapons. If the character you envision learning to wield the whip chain does not have at least three to five years of martial arts training under their belt with a firm foundation in hand to hand and, at least, some training on the staff then that is not realistic. More likely they’ll go through the staff weapons and the bladed weapons before they get to the flexible weapons. (This is especially true if you plan to have them using the whip chain in combat rather than exhibition.)

Your character may end up a specialist in flexible weapons, but they should have a solid foundation in martial combat before they get there. Remember, this is a weapon that specifically builds on the techniques of other weapons. They progress together, and you can’t learn one without the other.

Now, there are weapon traditions like some Western traditions where you can pick and choose what your character knows. These specific chain weapons are just not one of them.

Don’t forget.

The chain weapon isn’t just going to wrap around your characters so they get tangled in it, it’s gonna full on hit them too. More often than not. Sometimes in the face.

Example: Downward arc over the head, under the left armpit, across the right shoulder, and whumph right into the nose/mouth.

If you want this weapon wrapping around your characters, you gotta get that circular patterning down so your audience can visualize the misery your characters inflict upon themselves.

-Michi

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Q&A: Size Matters Not, Medieval Shoes, and Knife Fighting

Hello! Recently I heard that there is no way that a 60 kg woman can defeat a man weighs more. Is that true? There is a rumour that woman are also mostly useless as policemen and firefighters because of their lack of strength. Is that so? You’re my most reliable source.

Whoever said this is a moron. The weight argument is the preferred stomping ground of idiots who have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t regularly make arguments that a man who weighs 140 pounds is completely useless as a police officer compared to a man who weighs 180 or 220, do they? Remember, you heard it from them, all men who weigh 160 pounds need to give up on his sports dreams now and go invest in knitting. And a man who can’t get above 150? Forget it, he’s trash. (Remember, Bruce Lee weighed 60kg, 132 pounds.)

“Someone who is short can’t defeat someone who is tall.”

We take gender out of the argument and the argument itself becomes ridiculous. This is an argument that’s not based in facts or reality, but rather one based in gender bias and societal conditioning. The “science” argument is just there to legitimize their position, but has no real basis in reality. The argument is telling you a woman can’t defeat a man because she’s a woman. Ask, what about a 220 pound woman? And watch them sputter.

This person you were speaking to was fantasizing all violent conflicts as duels, or physical conflicts with no surprises. Violence is not a stats game. Weight will do jack all against a knife, for example. This fantasy man will go down like a wet paper bag from a blow by a tire iron. Let’s not talk about guns. Even with weapons removed from the mix, weight isn’t an issue except in grappling. Here’s the thing: weight is a main consideration to the untrained, the ones with no martial training.

They hyperfocus on size rather than technique because size is the only advantage they have. They think weight is unbeatable because it has always worked for them. Weight does matter on the playground, size is intimidating when you’re six and up against a bullying boy of twelve. Starke likes this comment from a police officer once told him which is, “most people haven’t been in a fight since high school.”

Martial combat places its focus on disruption. You roll your wrist against the thumb when someone grabs you to escape because the thumb is the weakest point in the grip. You block a punch before it extends, because you put your extended arm against a fist with the elbow still bent that fist is going nowhere. Step between someone’s legs and a simple push to the chest or head can destabilize their whole body. The force of a punch comes, not from physical strength, but from the hips and shoulders, from the momentum generated by your body. You can control a tall man by grabbing him by the head and craning it sideways so his whole body is off kilter. Where the head goes, the body follows.

Size has its advantages, and its weaknesses. Exploiting those weaknesses is what martial training is all about.

This person can’t conceive of a world where weight isn’t considered important, where it doesn’t really matter because you’ve already learned to deal with it. There will always be someone who is taller, someone who is physically stronger, who is physically faster, who is more clever, who is smarter, who is more gifted than you are. However, that’s no reason to give up.

There are policewomen and female firefighters, female soldiers, female EMTs, guerrilla fighters, mercenaries, a female soldier just recently qualified for special forces training this November. You can check out Samantha Swords if you want to look at women who practice HEMA. There are women all over the martial arts world. They own their own schools, they compete in tournaments, they are self-defense specialists who run their own seminars teaching other women.

“No way”, especially when used broadly about an entire gender that reflects half of the planet’s human population, is an argument you can ignore.

I’ve been researching, but I don’t know if I’m just really bad at it or what, because I was wondering if it would make sense for my medieval military to wear tall, slightly heeled boots kind of like Wonder Woman’s, and if the boots would inhibit their movement too much or if I should change their footwear

Historically high heels are riding shoes and they’re for your cavalry, so the foot stays in the stirrup. Your standard infantry would not wear them. Generally, the shoes word during the middle ages (depending on period) were completely flat. The high heel didn’t become a fashion item until the 1700s and, in the beginning, were still worn by men.

Here are some middle ages shoes. Here are more shoes. The sabaton is the piece of armor which goes over the top of the shoe and protects the shin. This is the armor, depending on period, your soldiers (who were able to afford the armor) would wear. Wool and leather were also armor worn during the period. You can also watch Lindybeige discussing the reenactment medieval shoes he ordered for his HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) and why they work well with sabatons.

Some other resources: Medieval Warfare, Scholagladiatoria, and Wikitenaur.

If you don’t mind helping, what type of build would a knife fighter need/develop? And how would they train/be trained? Thanks so much.

An athletic build like the kind you see off of long distance runners. Their muscles will be long, developed by hours of stretching them out versus thick like you get off weight lifting. This build will be more a product of their physical conditioning regimen than their training, and what you’ll get off most martial arts combatants who don’t run around in heavy armor or are bowmen/women. You do a lot of physical conditioning in any sort of martial training to build up your endurance. This means lots of running, lots of wind sprints, lots of development of the lungs, and the body’s core to build up balance. They’ll be doing a lot of sit ups.

How they were trained would depend on the era they exist in, the country where they live, and the kind of blades available. This is part of the problem with general questions like this because martial combat training is very specific to and heavily reliant on the world your character exists in. Combat and martial training are responses to environmental threats, so a character who has to deal with heavily armored opponents on the regular will be trained differently than someone who grew up in South Central.

Knife fighting is butcher’s work. You don’t need to be trained in the use of a knife to wield one effectively in close quarters. They’re a fast weapon that is used to gain significant advantage in hand to hand combat. Bull rush, stab a guy in the stomach six times, and he’s done. The knife itself is a utility tool in most martial arts systems and primarily used to support other weapons, or, again, as a hand to hand tool. You use the knife because you want an advantage in unarmed situations.

Ergo, your knife fighter will also be/should also be a skilled hand to hand combatant because if they have been trained to fight will start with hands first. Hands are safer, and in a structured system provide the building blocks which are necessary for the more deadly techniques.

Marc MacYoung’s “Knife Fighting Lies” is a good breakdown about the difference between knife fighting taught in martial arts versus knife fighting in the real world. Keep in mind when reading that he’s specifically discussing knives in self-defense and rebuking the fantasies of martial arts, but it is a good breakdown if you want to bring a knife fighter into your fiction.

When asking about knife fighting, I assume you mean systems like Indonesian and Filipino martial arts such as Silat and the kerambit. Or, something similar. The graceful, deadly knife fighter of fiction is going to come out of traditional martial arts systems that heavily emphasize hand to hand where the knife is a utility tool accentuating techniques the student has learned. This means the knife fighter’s training won’t really be any different from that of the standard martial artist. Their training will depend on the system used, and what that system prioritizes. Use of the knife will be the last thing they learn rather than the first. They will never train with a live knife, especially never with a practice partner. The practice knife will be made of rubber or wood or blunted metal (like all practice weapons, the only time you will train with a “live” weapon is sticks or staves, and even the ends of those can be padded during sparring.)

Knife fighting is deadly. Knife fighting is about killing other human beings. Knife fighting can easily end in a double homicide with both participants dead if they both have knives. Knives are ambush weapons, so practically its not good to think of them as dueling tools. Knife fights are usually over in a few moves, so we’re talking a fight that lasts (at best) thirty seconds. Most likely, the fight will be shorter than that. Any wound from the knife can kill you, and you won’t escape unscathed.

Sammy Franco has a good discussion of knife fighting you can find on his website.

Kill or Get Killed by Colonel Rex Applegate (1943) is still considered the go-to manual for Western style hand to hand combat. I’d say this is a good starting point for anyone with an interest in knife fighting from a modern combat/warfare perspective.

-Michi

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Q&A: 1vX? RUN!

Hi, you’re backlog of answers and posts is both impressive and intimidating. It is my personal goal to reach the very first post reading back from the most recent. I thought I’d pose my own question while I’m at it: the prospect of being very outnumbered and the way it’s addressed in fiction. With no combat training, it always rings bullshit bells, whether they are fighting off hordes at once or discreetly dispatching one after another. It feels like a person’s fatigue would catch up with them.

If you go back far enough, you’ll find the posts we’ve done on the 1vX. Fighting multiple opponents is possible but difficult, the fight is brutal, and, if caught in this situation, you are probably going to die. Fiction likes to show of the 1vX because it is the most difficult type of combat available which if done correctly will cement your character as an amazing fighter, and when done incorrectly breaks all suspension of disbelief. The best films to showcase the basic theory for fighting multiple opponents are some of the old school Jackie Chan movies where you see him bouncing off the walls while he runs away from the hoarde of mooks like a madman. That’s basically how it works — you run, you get in a hit or two, you shove a few into each other to slow them down, then you run again.

You’re juggling.

You’re not really fighting so much as dragging them into each other so they can’t coordinate. If you cede the floor to them, if you let them surround you, it’s over. You can’t stop and fight one at a time because they all come together, and they work together. These are not the stuntmen who sit in the queue patiently waiting their turn until their time comes to be beat up by the hero. Humans are social creatures, we’re pack animals, and even untrained groups will come against you together. The more opponents there are then the more the difficulty exponentially increases, and it was already sky high. Two people working together can easily kill you, even when you know what you’re doing. Eight will murder the shit out of you, and eight combatants is the maximum limit the single human brain can handle at once. People work together. The better coordinated they are, the more used they are to working together, the worse it is. An individual can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and it doesn’t take many for that to start happening.

One of the most common tactics from school yard bullies to prison inmates is to have one person lock their target down while the other person, grabbing hold of them either from behind or at another angle while the second wails on them (or knifes them.) This means the individual can’t fight back and is rendered helpless. This is the group’s ultimate goal.

The single combatant in a 1vX situation needs to keep moving. They can’t afford to stop. If they have a long or mid range weapon like a staff or sword then they might be able to hold down a single defensive position provided that position defends their back. With enough open space, the staff is better for this than the sword.

You’re in a sprint for your life. The fight is brutal and exhausting, you cannot afford to make mistakes. Once you lose the initiative, once the group takes control of the fight’s pace, it’s over. You turn your defense into offense.

Fighting multiple opponents is possible, but, especially with unarmed/hand to hand, we’re talking top tier difficulty situations which will most likely kill you. Two on one is likely to kill and has killed people who are experienced combatants. A Navy SEAL getting knifed by six bikers behind a bar shouldn’t be a surprising result. If your character is trying to protect someone else and get separated from them, then you should remember that the group is not all going to turn around and come at you. Some of them are going to keep chasing their original objective, especially if there’s more than two.

Fiction obsesses over the 1vX for fight scenes because the difficulty grade is excellent for showing off the hero’s skill and also because in visual mediums they’re exciting to watch. Then, they end up in situations where they’re breaking down the combatants levels by the numbers of enemies they can fight at once then utilize this to define the villain’s skill level. This narrative technique works well under the right circumstances but when you’re imitating the structure of the martial arts genre without understanding the nuts and bolts of why it works, we run the risk of the scene running wildly out of control. At this point, power creep sets in and numbers cease to matter. The narrative tension goes when this happens, the illusion breaks, and we get dolls slapping each other on the page or stunt actors punching shadows. Most 1vX fight scenes in film, especially in the US, are actually just the fight choreographer throwing as much action onto the screen as possible to overwhelm your eyes/brain and hope you don’t notice. They’re there to convince you that the character has control over the situation instead of a revolving door of, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” Where you’re trying to track a crazy amount of movement and split your focus between three different people when they all just need to focus on you.

The problem with the presentation of the 1vX in fiction is that the sequence type has become so ubiquitous it tricks the audience into thinking they’re easy to write. A well-written 1vX fight does require a fairly sophisticated understanding of how martial combat works because you’re juggling multiple fighters and you run the risk of queuing (lining your different characters up to make attacks so the character only fights one at a time while the others wait their turn.)

-Michi

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Q&A: Translating Film to Novel with Raptors

I don’t have much experience with writing scary stuff and I need advice. I’m trying to write a scene similar to the one in Jurassic Park where the kids are dodging the raptors. But I’m having trouble translating the tension and terror in that scene into prose.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is a horror novel. If you haven’t looked at the book yet, I suggest giving it a read. You’ll find more insights into the source of the horror and how to write horror with dinosaurs in the novel than in the movie. The best way to learn about writing horror is to read horror novels. You can also read The Lost World by Michael Crichton, which isn’t a sequel to his first novel but a novelization of Spielberg’s second movie. You might glean some insights there also on the nature of translating visual mediums to the page.

Now, let’s move on to Jurassic Park the film. The raptor sequence is the capstone to the film’s subplot. The emotions you feel while watching this scene have been carefully managed and developed by what we’ve learned about the raptors, what they’re capable of, and what we’ve seen them do to the movie’s adults; including Muldoon, the park’s gamekeeper. Scenes in novels and film aren’t individual pieces which can be broken off. They’re part of a collective whole where all the pieces are working together for that climactic moment. Taking what you like from a book, a television show, or a comic is all well and good, but don’t forget to take your time and figure out how the narrative got there. What were the pieces leading up to this scene with the raptors which foreshadowed and emphasized the danger they represented? In the raptors’ case, the foreshadowing begins with the opening sequence with Muldoon and the workers putting a raptor into the cage. We never see the raptor, but we can hear it. Then, later we see Grant, Ellie, and the little boy at the digsite discussing the raptor skeleton. “You’re still alive when they start to eat you.”

This is all a careful structure on the movie’s part to build audience anticipation, including Grant having this discussion with a little boy rather than an adult. The possibility of the children being eaten in the beginning feeds toward that final scene in the movie.

The problem with looking to film specifically when trying to replicate is the presentation of a scene is visual. You need to look past the camera placement, and delve into the other four senses. The horror of Jurassic Park is a particular subgenre, one should probably familiarize yourself with on a conceptual level.

Your characters being hunted.

This is probably already obvious to you, but think it through. The scene with the raptors in Jurassic Park with the kids involves the children being hunted. With the way the shots are framed, we see both. The raptors are communicating back and forth with each other as they try to problem solve on the location of the children. The kids figure out where the raptors are through the sounds they make, and their reflections in the stainless steel cabinets. The kids need to get past the raptors and make it to the single exit from the room or else game over. The narrative has already established these animals are some of the most highly advanced and intelligent pack hunters to ever exist.

So, how do they escape?

From a written perspective, you don’t want to show the raptors. You don’t want the audience to know where they are because that heightens the tension. We see what the characters see, we hear what they hear, and the tension in a written context largely comes from what we don’t know. Based on what we don’t know, we can’t relax and neither can your characters.

Anyone can die.

You may have already planned it out for how these characters survive, but here’s the thing… you need to forget that they’re going to live and focus on them trying not to die. If you let them relax into the idea that they’re getting out of this because you already know that they are then they won’t try to survive and they’ll cheapen the scene.

Horror is about characters getting picked off one by one until only the few remain. The death count is necessary because it heightens the danger our antagonist represents, but keeping that monster in the unknown is also important. Survival should never be guaranteed. If it’s not, you’ll be focusing on the “problem solving” aspect of your characters, them figuring out under pressure how they’re going to escape this situation, and delve into the necessary “run for your life” aspect.

These characters don’t have the tools they need to fight this monster, all they can do is run. However, if you run from a Jurassic Park raptor then the raptor will run you down. They’re as fast as you, as agile as you, and more clever.

This is the video game stealth sequence where if you fuck up, you die and there’s no reload, no do-over. You’re done. So, knowing that, how do your characters behave while under pressure?

Don’t Be Afraid to Throw Out the Outline

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you need your characters to make the right choices. Don’t munchkin your way to victory. Desperate people don’t really make the right choices, they make choices which feel right to them in the moment and hope they work out.

As a creative, I loosely outline but never make myself beholden to it for the express purpose of making changes. In my first draft, I let my gut dictate where the story goes. This means, sometimes, characters who I wasn’t expecting to die do die and characters I wasn’t planning on having live ultimately survive. This gets cleaned up in later drafts, but this means that my characters are always making snap decisions in the moment. Sometimes, they work out. Sometimes, they don’t. This works well for me as a writing tool, keep in mind that it may not for you, and it’s only one option.

Think from the Perspective of Your Characters

When you watch the raptor scene from Jurassic Park, put yourself into a position where you’re re-imagining the scene from the perspective of the kids. You’re not trying to copy beat for beat. Think about how you would feel when put into a similar situation. What would you do in a similar position, what would the characters you’re writing do? We’re talking about a character being hunted, even an act as simple as sticking their head up to look for the monster can be fatal, where the sound of their breathing is a risk, when any movement could alert the monster to their presence. The kids aren’t skilled at moving without a sound and they’re in a kitchen loaded with opportunities for their hiding spot to be discovered either by a knocked off object or just by touching the thin steel wall of the cabinet.

Do you go left or right? Do you look for the monsters? How do you do this? Do you peer under the cabinets? Try to watch their reflection? Lift your head up? Do you crawl on the floor or run?

You’ve got to make a choice. If you stay in one place, you’ll die.

The raptors are looking for you. You can hear them calling back and forth to each other, but you have no idea what they’re saying. The sound hurts your ears. Your heart is pounding so loudly you’re sure the raptors can hear it. You’ve already seen so many of your friends die. Fall down, trip on the floor, not close a door fast enough, make mistakes, and, ultimately, get eaten. They’re all gone now. There’s no adults around. No one to protect you. There’s just you.

So, what do you do?

Make a dice roll. Hope you succeed.

This is really how you write action/adventure, and how you imitate Spielberg’s work in your writing. You’ve got to bring the scene home to the stakes for survival, the emotions of the characters, and the consequences of failure.

Know Your Horror

Horror thrives on the idea that your characters are ill-equipped to handle the situation, and are out of their element. They’re not perfectly suited to deal with what’s happening to them. If they are, if you present them as hyper competent and supremely capable, then it will kill all of your tension. You want completely average people trying to survive in situations where they are way over their head. The horror monster has to have the advantage, otherwise this isn’t Aliens or Predator. We’re in Aliens versus Predator territory and, whatever else we might say about them, those movies are not horror. Another example is the later Jurassic Park films like Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World which are straight up theme park action adventure, more and more outrageous as the dinosaurs become less and less legitimately dangerous to the health of our protagonists.

You need to be willing to let your characters look silly, weak, fumbling, and incompetent. Normal kids who love books on dinosaurs and computers, who constantly bicker to the point of driving everyone else around them crazy. Kids who cry, kids who whine, and clamp their hands over their mouth to keep from screaming.

-Michi

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Q&A: Relationship Advice

I’m going to break this “question” into two pieces. They’re related, but they really need to be addressed separately.

Wow if someone expected me to automatically know their triggers without telling them and then threw me without making sure I was okay after, I’d leave them. You can’t expect your non-combat s/o to do all the work and for the combat s/o to none. I have several triggers but I make sure to tell my s/o what they are.

In broad strokes, I agree with completely.

If someone expects you to automatically know who they are; that’s a problem. It happens, but it’s a problem, and it’s not the kind you should dismiss. Relationships require communication. They require work. They require mutual respect. There’s the romantic ideal of an effortless relationship, but that is just a fantasy; kinda like being a superhero.

It’s very easy to fall in love with someone that does not exist. People do it all the time. They think they know the object of their attraction, but they never really take the time to pay attention and find out who that person is. To some extent, this is human nature. You meet someone, start a crush, fill in the blanks, and then expect them to still be the same person in daylight.

It doesn’t work that way.

Like I said, honest communication is vital. You need to talk to someone to start to get an idea of who they are. Watching them is also important, but if you don’t communicate, you don’t have a baseline. You can’t expect everyone to be able to explain everything about themselves; most people aren’t that introspective. However, it will go a long way. So, yes, talk to them. Learn who they really are. Be honest, because if you’re not, you’ve only yourself to blame if they believe you.

What’s worse are the people who expect someone else to magically conform to their ideal version of them. This is abusive, and depressingly common. Many people, when presented with the reality of their significant other, expect them to cede their identity in favor of the illusory version.

It sucks, but you can’t have a relationship with a dream. Sooner or later, someone’s going to get hurt.

With only one exception, every single incident I can point to, where someone tripped another’s reflexes, it’s come out of a lack of respect, so let’s talk about that.

Relationships require mutual respect. Not, one way. Not, “you must respect them,” because the inverse is also true. If you’re not respecting one another, it’s not really a relationship of equals, or even healthy.

Ambushing someone, regardless of what you think their feelings on the subject will be, is disrespectful. You’re saying that what you intend to do is more important than them consenting to your action. Then you’re taking the extra step to deprive them of the opportunity to consent. You can’t say, “I’m going to do what I want without permission,” and say you respect that person. These are mutually exclusive.

Context is important, and there are plenty of situations where people will engage in behavior with each other that you wouldn’t. There’s also plenty of behavior you might participate in that someone else wouldn’t.

How do you know this context? Get to know your partner. Seriously. If you don’t know them, you don’t have a relationship with them, you’re involved with an illusion, and cannot respect the actual person you’re using as a proxy.

If your friend says, “hey, I do martial arts.” You might express interest in trying to figure out what that means. The same goes for your crush, regardless of their sex or gender.

If your friend says, “hey, I don’t like it when you startle me like that.”

Don’t do it.

The signs are there long before you ever trigger someone’s reflexes, and that starts with paying attention to what they tell you a long time before anything drastic occurs. If you respect another person, you respect their boundaries. You want to get to know them, learn the situations where they’re comfortable. You’ll pay attention to their body language. These reactions don’t come from nowhere, and, in general, the extreme examples are when the other person ignored every other sign leading up to the moment where the combat response happens.

Like I said, this experience happened once with a significant other in my teens. It has never happened with strangers, or other kids in High School, or in college. The only other person who has ever triggered my reflexes is my brother, who is a fourth degree black belt. These stories are always about an intentional act taken by another person when they disregard stated boundaries and comfort zones.

Tripping the fight reflexes are not common occurrences. They’re extreme examples that happen with a specific trigger action and are a result of ignoring the other person’s boundaries. You’ll figure it out if you respect the other person enough to pay attention to them.

If someone engages in unprovoked violent towards you, leave. There’s no room for debate here. It’s over. Time to move on.

However, conflating physical abuse with these specific instances is also a problem.  But… I didn’t do anything wrong. Yes, you did. If this happens, then you ignored the warning signs to the point where a response that occurs once in a decade (and only with provocation) happened to you.

You’ve learned a concept exists and, like a kid in a candy store, think the natural occurrence of combat reflexes unintentionally damaging a significant other because they stepped wrong is far more common than it actually is — which is next to never.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you don’t know anyone who actually has these reflexes, or been in a community where they’re common. So, trust me, when I say I know more about this situation and what triggers it than you do.

You know what this behavior gets used for, don’t you?

Bullying.

Kids without combat training, just like you, will use this on kids with combat training or just sensitive reflexes because they A) don’t believe the other child when they say stop, and B) because they know they’ll get sympathy when/if the other child goes off. They get away with bullying and look like a victim when the inevitable occurs. They want the emotional response you had to protect them from the big bad child over there, even though they were the instigators.

If you think this doesn’t happen in relationships, think again. Abuse goes both ways, and having a capacity for violence doesn’t necessarily protect you from it. You do get a lot less belief and sympathy when the abuse, be it emotional or physical occurs, because of uninformed attitudes which buy into the idea violence equals strength.

I have more stories about these kinds of people than I do the other.

 I think, in a romantic situation in fiction, the non-combat s/o shouldn’t be ‘punished’ in the narrative and trauma-related responses shouldn’t be ‘weaker’.

As with the above statement, I agree fundamentally, but it’s a little more complicated. If you’re writing a couple, it’s important that they have some kind of equilibrium between each other. The advice above still applies: they need to be able to communicate with one another, there needs to be a baseline of trust and respect, but they also need to both bring something to the table. I in the real world, that’s work, but in fiction it can easily be their skill set.

It’s easy to become fixated on violence as an overly useful skill set. This isn’t true to life, and it can be very important to remember that non-combatant characters have lives beyond violence.

The simple thing is to remember that all of your characters, whether they’re in a relationship with one another or not, need to be characters in their own right. You need some balance to show them as functional people, or they become trophies and McGuffins; which brings us to your complaint.

At a certain level, combat is like any other skill your characters may have. A character who doesn’t have any combat skills can’t fight effectively, a character who can’t pick locks, can’t sneak into places, a character who is unskilled with computers can’t diagnose their own technical issues, a character who isn’t trained in criminal investigation isn’t going to know how to investigate a murder. A character who’s basically honest will have an extremely hard time lying convincingly.

You can have battle couples, where both of them are trained and proficient in combat. They may be in the thick of it together with similar skills, or they may have different focuses that they can work together. By the same measure, you can have couples with similar skillsets, such as hacking, or subterfuge, with similar considerations. Or, you can have characters that have very little overlap in their skills, but can still work together in differing capacities.

The problem comes in when you say, “this skill set” is more valid than that one. In some occasions that may be true, but it’s something you want to be careful about.

On a related issue, it is worth pulling characters out of their comfort zone regularly. A character who never encounters a problem they need to get creative with can easily become monotonous, in a, “when all you have is a hammer,” kind of way. This is one of the times where having a couple with mismatched skills can become incredibly useful. Especially if your combat capable character is just as out of place when they’re in their partner’s area of expertise.

If you have a character that’s permanently out of their depth, especially pairing them with someone who’s hyper-competent, that’s flirting with bad writing. I can think of a few counter-examples, but this is something you should be very cautious about.

There’s a real trend in the real world of people not believing people when they say, “don’t do this. I don’t like it.” This is the basis of the trope we were discussing. If you triggered someone’s fight reflexes, chances are very good that it wasn’t an accident. The person who did it just didn’t believe the other person when they said, “don’t do that.” You made a bad assumption that the non-combat S/O is going to be the one with the trauma responses or even that the combat triggers are trauma related at all. Or that they’d cause trauma to the non-combat S/O. If you interpreted one as “weaker” than the other because they don’t have the same skills as their combat S/O, then that one is on you.

Relationships are built on trust. Trust is built on communication and mutual respect. These mishaps happen specifically when boundaries are not respected, when the other person is not believed because these aspects of who they are doesn’t fit the image their S/O has of them. While these are ingrained reflexes, it does actually take work to get someone to reflexively lash out.

Modifying your behavior for the person you love is not a big deal when they’re doing the same for you. If someone you like says, “I don’t like you tickling me.” Then, don’t tickle them. If they say, “Please, don’t flash your hand in my face.” Don’t flash your hand in their face.

If you feel adjusting your behavior is unfair, don’t date.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reality Or Entertainment? You need both.

Hi! You raise a good question on choreography. Actors can’t do realistic fight scenes and it has to look entertaining. Well, then why are we creating realistic fight scenes in writing instead of entertaining? Of course on screen it’s restrictive by the medium. Are realistic fight scenes in writing more entertaining than unrealistic movie fight scenes in writing? Or is it just because it’s writing we have free rein and not restrictive to what can be done for a movie.

Why does it have to be one or the other?

The answer is both. You want fight scenes that are entertaining and convincing, and the only way to learn how to do that is study the applications of practical combat, martial arts, choreographed fight sequences, and everything in between.

The written medium is not the visual medium, so the way one entertains their audiences is ultimately different. Besides that, the vast majority of you are not a professional fight choreographers with multiple black belts in different martial styles and years of experience in the business. You lack skilled actors and stunt performers to carry out your vision, and, because movies are a visual medium, you don’t have a moving image or even an image like in comic books or art to attract the eye. You can create an image with words, but it isn’t the same. In visual medial, this is an image you are beholden to if you want to keep your audience engaged and entertained. Realistic violence is not engaging in the same way as choreographed fights in films. They are fundamentally different due to the necessity of motion. Movies specifically go in for wide sweeping attacks like the roundhouse punch or the roundhouse kick or the wheel kick because a spinning or circular motions look better on camera. Large easily telegraphed moves so the audience can see from a distance and follow along.

In a written fight scene there is no moving image, no sound effects, no music, no lighting effects, no jump cuts, no professional actors, stunt actors, choreographers, or costume crew.

There’s just you and what you, the writer, can bring to the table.

The visual medium has different requirements than written. Try as you might, you’ll never engage your audience at the same level because you lack the tools. If you try, you’ll end up with unworkable fight scenes which are too long, unwieldy, and ultimately bore your audience.

What use is a character performing six back flips or cartwheels on page to get to the other side of the room and grab the weapon on the opposing wall?

This is a visually engaging stunt piece on screen, but the effect lays in the quality of the movement and how your eyes are stimulated by it. The over the top aspects and overlong fight scenes of your traditional action movie are a liability because their goal is to create a visual spectacle and they take a long time to get to the point. You can get to the effect much faster in a written format and be just as effective.

Now, the question you should be asking about choreographed fight scenes is precisely what those six cartwheels are conveying to the audience about this character’s combat proficiency. Why cartwheels versus them running to the opposite side of the room and grabbing the weapon? Yes, gymnastics are entertaining to watch but that’s not the only reason why they had the character cartwheel. There’s no practical reason for it, but the act is communicating an aspect of the character and the plot to you. You should learn those signals, because you can figure out how to apply those to your writing (without needing cartwheels.)

However, you’ll still face a basic issue. Can you write interesting and entertaining fight sequences if you know nothing about violence?

Let’s look at this snippet below.

Katie smiled, her fingers grazing the .44 Magnum on her hip. She pulled it, grabbed the bottle of Jack, and rolled to her feet. “Hey, Josh.”

Joshua Barnett stood across from her, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his leather jacket. Obsidian bangs fell across one eye, jaggedly cut with a razor. His look was intent on some sort of punk aesthetic, all red and black rocker tee, thick silver chains, and black designer jeans. A loose, shark tooth earring dangled on a chain off his right earlobe. He cocked his head, studying her with one, visible, inky black eye. “Look at you stealing my look.”

Katie’s lips quirked, the revolver tucked in the shadow of her thigh as she swirled amber whiskey around thick glass. She never saw much point in spending one hundred and twenty dollars on an outfit that’d be ruined by sun up. Leather was a practical choice. Spirits had an aversion to tanned flesh. Besides, leather jacket and jeans held up better when doing dirty work. She steered away from wearing earrings, piercings had a nasty habit of getting torn out. And steel-toed work boots? All the better for breaking shins.

Tianna squeaked and ducked low behind the headstone.

Josh’s eyes moved past Katie, falling to where she tried to hide. “Step away. Me and this bitch’ve got unfinished business.”

Katie snorted.

Josh took a step forward, spreading his hands in his pockets. “Hey, I’m just doing my divinely mandated duty. Am I gonna have to snap you apart like a kit-kat bar?” He grinned. “I’m kinda looking forward to tearing your weak halfsie arm out of that socket, but, you know, Cass won’t like her pet coming home broke.”

Lifting the Jack, Katie took another long drink.

Josh stood stock still, his arms half-out, and his stupid grin stuck waiting for a response. Then, he looked away. He dropped his hands and brought the black jacket back to his waist. “You never were any fun.”

“You talk too much,” Katie replied.

He nodded to the Jack Daniel’s bottle in her hand. “Hey, I’m not the one who comes to the graveyard with a weak ass club like that.” He chuckled. “Didn’t Cass teach you? Don’t bring weapons to a fist fight when you plan to go mano a mano. In a duel, it’s not sporting.”

Katie walked forward. She didn’t like to talk. As she closed, she dropped her arm. On her last step, she swung the bottle at his head.

Josh grinned, and Katie knew why. He was a full-fledged Follower of Ma’at. To him, her fastest, hardest swing moved in slow motion.

That’s why I stopped relying on hand to hand.

His forearm came up, blocked her wrist.

Their eyes met.

The .44 Magnum appeared from behind her thigh, pointed at his knee.

Josh’s eyes dropped.

Katie fired. The bullet struck flesh, hollowed through muscle into bone, and exploded. The lower half of Josh’s leg went with it. Blown off.

He tumbled to the ground, screaming.

“Fulminated mercury rounds,” Katie said. “Can’t take normal hollow points against vampires. Dense bones, denser musculature. You need a little extra. Just like Followers, Joshua.”

“Wake the Dead” – CE Schmitt & Michael J Schwarz

So, how much of this is real?

  1. Jack Daniel’s bottles are made from dense, heavy glass, and unlikely to come apart in your hand like a regular glass bottle. They work exceptionally well as clubs. (If you want to watch one in action in a visual medium, you can find it used Dirty Laundry – the Punisher short film with Thomas Jayne by Phil Joanou from Adi Shankar’s bootleg universe. This is very R. Be wary if you’re squeamish.)
  2. Fulminated mercury rounds are real. You load fulminated mercury up into hollow point rounds and create an explosive. They’re liable to explode within the chamber of a semi-automatic handgun, but the .44 Magnum is a revolver. Different delivery mechanism. Boom.
  3. Hiding a drawn gun in the shadow of your thigh is a real tactic. The position masks the profile of the gun, your arm blends with the leg, so the eye doesn’t catch it.
  4. Katie distracts Joshua from the gun and her arm’s position with a visible weapon: the bottle, then by swinging the bottle at his head. She intentionally trips his fight reflexes i.e. flashing motion in his peripheral vision and forces him to focus high. (Standard martial arts feint, where you throw a false strike to camouflage your real intentions.) This keeps Joshua from seeing the second weapon until it’s too late.

In this scene, we’ve got an underdog character turning the tables on their opponent by immediately shutting them down with superior force of arms. The fight scene lasts less than a page, but it’s effective at teaching you who this character is along with the kind of combat tactics they use.

However, the point is not what’s real; only metric you’re graded on is what you can convince your audience of. There’s plenty of embellishment in this scene, but the actions and behaviors of the characters are grounded in a real place. They’re behaving logically, in ways which make sense to them, and are on par with what we might expect of someone with their combat background. While “realistic” is not what makes a scene enjoyable, it can help you create more interesting fight sequences and sell the idea your character knows what they’re doing. A large part of what makes this scene interesting is the entire ten page setup that you’re missing, the emotional investment in Katie and why she’s brutally murdering another teen, which is part of what’s needed to get the reader invested in the fight on page.

Remember, fight sequences are often a release of tension. They ultimately create more problems than they solve as violence invariably escalates out of control, but they serve as a stress valve for the narrative and, with good ones, a reward for your audience.

If you know nothing about violence, the weapons used, how strategy works, and what the techniques look like, can you write the scene you imagine? Can you telegraph to your audience through classic show don’t tell? Did you realize there was more to show don’t tell for written fight scenes than simply showing your characters fighting? Do you know what makes a fight scene entertaining?

A writer has different tools available in their arsenal to create an entertaining fight sequence, but in order to write that sequence you need to understand how violence works. The physicality of it, the kinetics of it, the psychology of it, the way violence feels, tastes, and smells.

You’ve made a basic mistake in your assumption about “realistic”. Narrative Realism is based in the substructure of your story. Realism is whatever the rules are in your setting say is real. What creates suspension of disbelief for your audience is how well you adhere to those rules, this covenant you create with your audience. When your audience cries, “unrealistic!” You’ve broken their suspension of disbelief, you’ve broken the established narrative rules of your setting. You broke your covenant with your audience.

The goal of understanding “realistic” lies in learning about the realities of violence as combat, understanding the entertainment factor requires looking at the art portion of martial arts.

You need both.

Structuring a scene requires understanding violence from both an unrealistic and realistic perspective. You need to know what you’re sacrificing in order to be entertaining, heighten your tension and character drama, and then what you’re keeping. Your characters’ goals, decisions, and the way they choose to take action will be based in realism and a realistic extension of what makes sense for them. Meanwhile, the combat element will be driven from the perspective of entertainment choreography which is based in, you guessed it, real martial arts.

He had a handsome face, far as humans went, and a smug expression. Her fingers clenched into fists. She wanted to beat his smug face in.

He lifted a hand, and flicked his fingers. “Give me your best shot.”

Lunging across the distance, Katie came at him low. Her first strike a feint, she cut under his block and drove her left fist into his solar plexus. The Mark above her heart burned, energy flowing into her fists. Pinpoint like a brass knuckle overlay. Her mind hazy with deja vu. She punched him a second time in his abdomen with her right, then cut up. Her strike caught him under the chin. She drove her follow-up elbow into his throat.

Garrett grunted, stumbling backwards.

She ducked past him when he retaliated. Wheeling, she kicked him in the calf. Her leg came up, and she slammed her heel into his kidney.

Garrett turned, seizing her ankle. With one arm, he flung her over the couch.

Katie landed hard on the coffee table. The table gave way, cracking apart in a spray of wood and glass. She hit the floor. Pain spiked through her back, glass shards cut through her jacket and skin. She tasted copper on her tongue. Electricity swarmed the fingers on her left hand, alive and tingling.

He wiped the blood off his mouth.

She rolled back, kicked up, and landed on her feet.

“Wake the Dead” by CE Schmitt and Michael J Schwarz

We’ve got two characters who are not human, so the normal rules don’t apply. Still, we’re following the standard progression in the combat from Katie based on distance. She lunges strikes him with her left then her right fist in his stomach, up into an upper cut, and then follows up with an elbow to the throat after creating her opening. The upper cut knocks his chin up, exposing his throat and the arm drops into a perfect position to deliver a powerful blow with a close-quarters strike. That is four strikes together. This is called a combination. More importantly, these are four strikes structured with an understanding of both distance and placement i.e. how close you need to be in order for the strike to realistically work.

Like Katie, Garrett is not human and he has super-strength. He can throw her like a ragdoll with one arm from a standing position without needing any extra help from her incoming momentum. He gets hit by her heel, has it driven into his kidney via some version of an axe kick, and then he retaliates by one arming her across the room. This is him showing his superhuman resilience, even though the reader is liable to brush it off because of what they’re used to seeing from action movies.

The goal here is to be entertaining, to attract the imagination, but what helps sell the fight is the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter.

As a writer, knowledge is your ouroboros. Everything feeds together in a never ending cycle. The more you learn, the better the writer you become. If you want to write entertaining fight sequences, you need to learn as much about violence as you can in all its different aspects. You need to figure out why violence is entertaining, why these acts capture the human imagination, and also how they actually work within the real world so you can bring that knowledge to your fiction. Every new bit of knowledge you uncover is a new tool in your box which can be applied to your writing.

And you shouldn’t stop with violence.

Learn as much as you can about everything you can get your hands on. The more you explore, the more you discover, and the more you learn to operationalize knowledge gained, the better the writer you will be.